Do you hate your job?
If so, you’re hardly alone.
In fact, the chances are that — in America, anyway — if you don’t hate your job, you don’t care much for it.
In 2010, 28% of American workers were engaged. By the end of 2012, as the U.S. inched toward a modest recovery, that number increased slightly to 30%, matching the all-time high since Gallup began tracking the employee engagement levels of the U.S. working population in 2000.These latest findings indicate that 70% of American workers are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” and are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive. Currently, 52% of workers are not engaged, and worse, another 18% are actively disengaged in their work. Gallup estimates that these actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. between $450 billion to $550 billion each year in lost productivity.
Gallup blames the lack of engagement on bad management.
Certainly, a bad or inept boss can quickly sap any inspiration people have to do their jobs.
But what if this lack of engagement is something deeper?
What if this malaise is in some part due, in the words of anthropologist and political activist David Graeber, to “bullshit jobs”?
OK, I know you’re asking, “Am I considered to have a bullshit job?”
But before we get to Graeber and more of his thoughts, we must first visit a 1930 essay from John Maynard Keynes, the well-known British economist, called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.”
While some thinking in the piece is certainly outdated, the essay informs Graeber’s argument. Basically, Keynes foresaw that, within approximately 100 years of his time, people in the developed world would only have to work 15 hours per week.
I’ll let him explain:
If capital increases, say, 2 per cent per annum, the capital equipment of the world will have increased by a half in twenty years, and seven and a half times in a hundred years. Think of this in terms of material things — houses, transport, and the like.
At the same time technical improvements in manufacture and transport have been proceeding at a greater rate in the last ten years than ever before in history. In the United States factory output per head was 40 per cent greater in 1925 than in 1919. In Europe we are held back by temporary obstacles, but even so it is safe to say that technical efficiency is increasing by more than 1 per cent per annum compound. There is evidence that the revolutionary technical changes, which have so far chiefly affected industry, may soon be attacking agriculture. We may be on the eve of improvements in the efficiency of food production as great as those which have already taken place in mining, manufacture, and transport. In quite a few years-in our own lifetimes I mean-we may be able to perform all the operations of agriculture, mining, and manufacture with a quarter of the human effort to which we have been accustomed.
For the moment the very rapidity of these changes is hurting us and bringing difficult problems to solve. Those countries are suffering relatively which are not in the vanguard of progress. We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come — namely, technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.
But this is only a temporary phase of maladjustment. All this means in the long run that mankind is solving its economic problem. I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is to-day. …
For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich to-day, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter — to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!
There are changes in other spheres too which we must expect to come. When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession — as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life — will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.
Of course there will still be many people with intense, unsatisfied purposiveness who will blindly pursue wealth — unless they can find some plausible substitute. But the rest of us will no longer be under any obligation to applaud and encourage them. For we shall inquire more curiously than is safe to-day into the true character of this “purposiveness” with which in varying degrees Nature has endowed almost all of us. For purposiveness means that we are more concerned with the remote future results of our actions than with their own quality or their immediate effects on our own environment.
Did you get all of that? (For a well-considered analysis of Keynes essay in a current context see this piece by John Quiggin, a professor of economics at the University of Queensland).
Clearly, we’re not there yet. In fact, it doesn’t even seem like our society is moving in that direction. Such a future may be more difficult to imagine today than it was 80 years ago.
But just think about it: Instead of increasing our hours at work to get more things that don’t really make us happy, we could use technology to our advantage to work less and focus on the things that do make us happy — things like family, friends, hobbies and art.
What are the specifics of how such a society would function? I don’t have the expertise to even venture a guess.
And how do we come to any agreement that we might like to move in that direction?
Perhaps this is where I should share Graeber’s thoughts (from the summer 2013 issue of Strike! Magazine):
It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the sort of very problem market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don’t really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens.
While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their Facebook profiles or downloading TV box sets.
The answer clearly isn’t economic: its moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started happening when this even began to be approximated in the 60s). And on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them. …
For instance, in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well. …
If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorized stratum of the universally reviled, unemployed and the larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, and positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc.) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation of why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3-4-hour days.
It would be easy to get caught up in a debate about what is and isn’t a B.S. job. I think that would be a mistake and misses the point.
The bigger issue is that a lot of Americans — and I would guess people in every other nation — are doing jobs they do not enjoy for reasons that may not make a lot of sense in the big scheme of things, given our short stay on this planet.
It’s a powerful question, and one we do not think about nearly enough.
Do we dictate the economy, or does the economy dictate us?
If we are doing the dictating, maybe we need to do a better job of making sure we’re guiding things in the direction that best suit our needs to lead fulfilling, enjoyable lives.